Making a Way out of No Way.
Pentecost 3, Common Lectionary Year A
Genesis 21:8 – 21
©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones
If last week’s tale from the Torah
(about Sarah’s startling gift of grace)
was supposed to make us laugh,
I think with today’s story,
there are two faithful responses;
tears (of grief and outrage),
and silence (stunned, and the silence of deep listening).
For a Father’s Day text, it’s an utter FAIL;
Abraham is not a paragon of paternal virtue;
On the other hand, for a text falling on the
UCC’s national Indigenous Day of Prayer,
and falling in the midst of a groundswell of a societal,
painful awakening of white people
to the impact systems of privilege continue to have
upon people of colour, around the world, and close to home,
this text could not be more appropriate.
This is the horrifying story of ethnic “othering”
of surrogacy and privilege gone horribly wrong,
a story that has no one postal code, no one date stamp.
It is also a story where the shadow of hope can be glimpsed,
far off on the horizon,
a God Dream of making
“A Way out of No Way”
As we hear the story, let’s remember that it comes
down to us from the remnant of Israel,
the survivors of a culture-ending war,
who lived as foreign workers,
indentured to the machinery of the Empire of Babylon.
They told the stories of their beginnings,
as all people do in times of threat and crisis,
when the bottom falls out, and everything seems over, ended.
What stuns me, every time I open these
superficially simple, yet deeply complex tales from Torah
is how the people of the book chose
to remember not only the stories where they were once
the heroes, but the stories where they got it horribly wrong.
So this morning I’m not going to ask you to sit comfortably,
as this story comes and goes,
but to brace yourself for a very uncomfortable one.
A Story, a Story,
Let it come, let it go
Long before the day that Sarah laughed,
but long after Abraham had counted stars and sand,
to imagine the descendants
God HOLY ONE, had promised him,
Sarah took matters into her hands.
She had a slave girl, a foreigner from Egypt,
whom she called, for convenience,
Ha-Gar – the foreigner.
Sarah told Abraham,
“Here take this woman as my surrogate;
see if you can father a child for me through her body.”
And it was so.
Ha-Gar became pregnant by her mistress’s husband.
Hagar glowed- and gloated some- in Sarah’s service.
Sarah’s privilege challenged, she became jealous, fearful,
blaming, and she railed at Abraham,
who told Sarah to solve her problem as she saw fit.
Sarah made Hagar’s life such a misery, such a torture,
that Hagar, fearing for her life and that of her unborn child,
ran away to the wilderness,
where God’s mouth-piece messenger,
an angel we might call it,
found her by the spring called the Wadi of Schur.
“Ha-Gar, slave of Sarai, why are you out here where nothing lives?”
She answered, ”I’m fleeing from my mistress,
I’m scared for my life.”
God’s mouthpiece messenger replied,
“Return to Sarah’s tents, for the sake of the babe;
I declare to you, Abraham’s promise falls on the child you carry too.
He will live, and be named Ish-ma-el (God hears).
He will be father to a nation as numberless as the sand.”
Hagar returned to the tents and taunts of Sarai,
and her son was born.
And they called him Ishmael.
And he grew in the household of the man
who fathered him, Abraham.
In time, years later,
9 moons after the day Sarah laughed,
Sarah gave birth to the son of her own body,
the second son of Abraham, and they named him
The household of the old man grew, and his riches
were many. It seemed God’s promise was assured.
On the day of celebration of Isaac’s weaning,
Sarah watched the surrogate child,
borne by the foreigner, Ha-Gar,
playing with her son, and saw trouble.
She said to Abraham,
“Cast that foreigner out, along with her son;
they are no longer needed.”
Abraham was distressed for his first-born boy,
could he do as Sarah demanded?
But the voice of God in his soul
told him not to fear for the fate of son or mother;
saying “God’s promise lands on both boys;
both will father nations.”
So he rose early next morning,
taking bread and a skin of water,
and put them on the shoulder of Hagar,
and sent her on her way, with her child.
And again, Hagar went out far into the wilderness
wandering, lost around the desert of Beer Sheba.
When the water in the skin was all gone,
and the bread all eaten,
she put her son under a bush,
and walked a bow-shot distance away,
crying to the desert winds
“Don’t let me look on the death of my boy!”
God heard. Ish-ma-el.
God heard the wails of the boy,
And the messenger of God
with angelic greeting said,
“Fear not, Ha-Gar, for God hears: Ish ma-el.
Take him, and hold him fast with your hand,
my promise holds, he will live to father a nation.”
Ha-gar took her son fast by the hand,
and look there! A wellspring!
Refilling the skin, she gave him water,
and he, and his mother survived.
He grew tall and strong,
and adept with the bow,
a hunter-provider in the wilderness.
It was his mother who sealed the promise of God
by finding Ishmael a wife,
from her own people, Egypt.
This is the witness of Israel.
Thanks be to God.
Reflections on the Text ~ “Making a Way out of No Way”
As I said to my husband Norman over breakfast yesterday,
this is not, cannot possibly be, “the sermon on race”
beginning, middle, and tied up with a bow ending.
It’s a snowflake on the tip of an iceberg of a story
millennia, not centuries in the making:
the story of the shameful, unholy treatment
by those with more power, of “the other.”
As I said in my introduction to this painful narrative;
it is amazing, and instructive,
that in remembering their beginnings,
the Biblical writers choose to include
stories of what medieval Jewish scholar Ramban 
calls “the sins of our ancestors.”
He makes no attempt to soften,
or explain away, or justify,
Sarah’s privileged pouting that puts lives in danger,
nor of Abraham’s passive infanticidal complicity.
This is a cautionary tale,
that as contemporary Rabbi David Forhman says,
holds up a mirror to warn us,
God’s blessed, descendants of Avram and Sarai,
not to do the same to the stranger in our midst.
The way the Biblical writers tell it is profound,
because nestled in each carefully chosen word
of this tale of Hagar’s abuse as a chattel,
a surrogate, a foreigner, a woman,
and of her son; a pawn, seen as a threat
merely by his very existence,
are the seeds of this story’s catastrophic reversal
Abraham and Isaac’s descendants, centuries later,
are no longer powerful, and they fall victim to drought
and famine (lack of water and bread) that lead them
to the land of Hagar and Ishmael’s descendants in the Nile Delta;
Egypt. There they become Ha Gerim – the stranger;
there they are tormented and oppressed,
until God who hears their plight,
tells them to flee with bread on their shoulder,
and to rely on God’s providence of water in a forbidding wilderness.
The cycle repeats, century after century
Abraham’s descendants grow into the nation of David and Solomon,
and as the parade of kings comes and goes,
they become complacent and complicit in the mistreatment of
aliens, strangers, widows and orphans
(just listen to the railing of the prophets on that score),
and as new empires rise, like Assyria and then Babylon,
yet again, at the time these texts were written down,
Isaac’s descendants now weep by the waters of Babylon,
wondering how yet again,
they are the ones called, and mistreated, and maligned
and threatened as “foreign” other.
It’s gutsy for the grandmothers and grandfathers,
when asked for stories of comfort and belonging
to tell not only the story of God’s promise of blessing,
but to tell this story too;
to lean into the original sin
of human nature- the tendency to treat
what we have been given by the grace of God as a right,
and to believe that we have a right
not to share what we have been given by the grace of God
with “the other.”
It is gutsy for the Biblical canon not to have
whitewashed or erased this history of God’s people being, at times,
the abuser, not the abused.
It will be gutsy of us, if we dare to do the same.
To listen to the anguish of all Ha-gars,
and then to tell that story, even as it places us alongside
Sarah and Abraham, complicit in a system of oppression,
maybe not of our making, but one from which we nonetheless
benefit, at the expense of those whom God seems most particularly
concerned that we lift up, welcome, and call friend, not stranger.
Let me leave that there, and turn to the woman
at the centre of this text: Hagar.
As I shared with the Midrash group this week;
it took me sitting silently listening to the wisdom of
African-American women biblical scholars to see how
powerful this Biblical tale becomes when we see her.
Through the eyes and pen of Dolores Williams and Wilda Gafney,
I’m able to see this story of the near sacrifice of Ishmael
as the triumph of Hagar.
She is the victim of racial and sexual abuse,
she is single mother, she is the left-out other,
she is the refugee, she is the working poor adult,
who will do what it takes
to “make a way out of no way” for her child,
who will hold, hand-fast to the heritage that is owed
her offspring because God sees that child,
even when no one else does.
She becomes the mother of nations,
Hagar turned Hajar the Splendid One,
when she is prepared to look God in the eye,
and wrestle a blessing
not for herself but for her descendants.
In so doing, to quote Wil Gafney, she
“is the mother of Harriet Tubman,”
of the women and men who laboured to free their children
of the “Help” who raised their employers’ children,
of the mother fiercely protective
of their teenage sons whose lives are seen as threatening
just because their bodies are brown
or red or black.
And we, like Sarah and Abraham,
must be silenced by her determined survival
until we can say, “Amen”
to God’s wish
that she and her children, thrive.
A powerful, proverbial phrase among African Americans (and African-Canadians), referencing biblical narratives like this one and Isaiah 53 in relation to their survival in the eras of slavery, and Jim Crow. See the exhibition at the Smithsonian, and the PBS episode: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/video/episode-four-jim-crow-era-making-a-way-out-of-no-way/
 Ramban, or Nahmanides, a Rabbi, Philosopher, Biblical Scholar, from Catalonia, 1194-1270.
 See discussion of the parallel tradition surrounding Hajar and Ishmael in the Hadiths (not the Qu’ran) of Islam. cf. Wilda Gafney,Womanist Midrash, 39-42